Halyna Holovata used to dread the days her husband would return to their home in western Ukraine after long stints working abroad.

He would beat and verbally abuse her, and sometimes their two children, she said. On several occasions she was so badly injured she had to be hospitalized.

She said she would call the police, but they always told her it was an "internal family matter."

"The maximum they did, they took him in for some kind of talk and then brought him back the next day," Holovata said.

After an especially severe beating, she left her husband and found a new job in a city 150 kilometres away, but he tracked her down and showed up at her office.

"I was very shocked because I didn't understand how he found me," she said. "He said, 'Don't worry, I'll find you wherever you hide.'" 

A friend invited her to Toronto as a way to escape her husband. She came on a visitor visa in September 2011 and soon learned she could apply for refugee status in Canada as a woman fleeing domestic violence.

Domestic violence

Holovata, 44, is one of thousands of women who have successfully claimed refugee status in Canada on this basis.

A CBC News investigation reveals more than 15 per cent of female asylum seekers who arrived in this country in the past five years said they did so to escape persecution for being a woman. It's the most common reason women seek refuge in Canada, ahead of religious, ethnic or political persecution.

Gender persecution includes practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as domestic abuse at the hands of a partner or family member, which accounted for half of the claims in the data obtained by CBC.

Female persecution types

The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) decided on nearly 3,000 domestic violence claims between 2013 and 2017, accepting 58 per cent of them.

Claims based on domestic violence are, like all refugee claims, assessed based on two elements: the risk an individual faces and to what degree they can be protected in their home country, said Catherine Dauvergne, dean of the University of British Columbia's Peter A. Allard Law School and an expert in refugee and migration law.

"In cases of domestic violence, or really any persecutory harm which happens in the private sphere, the analysis almost always ends up focusing on what kind of state protection is available," she said.

"The high number of claims that you're seeing in this dataset is really reflective of the lack of organized, regular, reliable, dependable protection for women in all sorts of places around the world."

Most claims from Nigeria

Nigeria was the source of the highest number of gender-based claims from women, as well as domestic violence claims, specifically.

Female refugee countries

In many parts of Nigeria, people believe women should be subservient to men, said Comfort Ero, a Nigerian-Canadian author and women's rights advocate.

A woman who goes to the police to report domestic abuse would typically be sent home, Ero said, and even chastised by police for betraying her husband.

Comfort Ero

Author and women's rights advocate Comfort Ero says in some parts of Nigeria, women are expected to be subservient to men and can't turn to police for help if they're abused. (Comfort Ero)

"They don't want to even listen to her own side of the story."

In some parts of the country, when a woman leaves her abusive husband it's seen as a reflection on her family and causes embarrassment in the community, Ero said. For this reason, Nigerian women who have escaped such situations will rarely speak openly about it. 

Among the most vulnerable

Refugees who are women and girls are among the most vulnerable people in the world, said Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UN Refugee Agency's representative in Canada. As such, sexual violence against them is widespread.

Beuze saw this first-hand when he worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2003 and 2007, a time when sexual violence was used as a weapon of war. 

United Nations refugee agency reresentative  Jean-Nicolas Beuze

United Nations Refugee Agency representative Jean-Nicolas Beuze says Canada could do more to help female refugees fleeing domestic and sexual violence. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Some of the victims had items such as rocks and firearms inserted into them with such violence that the tissue between the vagina and the rectum was ruptured, he said.

"Those women, unfortunately, didn't have access to medical treatment on the ground and one of the only solutions for us was to resettle them to a country like Canada ... so they can have the medical attention and resume a normal life," he said.

"Canada has a long tradition of looking at all issues of sexual violence, gender identity in a very positive way and to provide the protections that the states of the people coming from those countries cannot afford."

'Here, I don't have good work, it's very physical, but I'm safe and I'm not afraid for my life, for my children's life.' - Halyna Holovata

Female asylum seekers overall were slightly more likely to have their claims accepted than males, according to the data.

However, women who cited gender persecution as a cause were generally less likely to have their claim accepted than refugees fleeing for political, religious or ethnic reasons.

Safety in Canada

Holovata now lives in Toronto. At first, she didn't believe the Canadian government would protect her and she struggled with the decision to leave her teenage children in Ukraine.

"I was between two fires. I was scared to go back but worried about my kids and I didn't know what to do."

Her lawyer assured her the government would protect her and helped her file a refugee claim. Three years later, in 2014, the IRB ruled in her favour.

Now Holovata, who was an accountant in Ukraine, works as a cleaner.

Despite having to give up her professional career, she says she's grateful to finally have found safety for herself and her son and daughter, who are now 25 and 22, respectively, and both attending university in Canada.

"In Ukraine, I had a good position to work but I had no life," she said. "Here, I don't have good work, it's very physical, but I'm safe and I'm not afraid for my life, for my children's life."

With a file from Kristin Annable


  • Disclaimer and methodology

The data used for this story was obtained from the Immigration and Refugee Board through (IRB) an Access to Information request. It includes 89,517 claims that were finalized, or concluded, between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2017.

This data refers to refugee claimants, or individuals who have made a claim in Canada for refugee protection. It does not include government- or privately sponsored refugees.

The data refers to IRB decisions and not necessarily individual cases. The IRB sometimes makes more than one decision for the same individual if the case is returned to the board by the appeal division or the Federal Court.

The country and cause of persecution refers to what a claimant tells an immigration or border services officer when they first make a claim. The information can change as a claim progresses through the system and those changes are not captured in this data.

Acceptance rates are calculated by dividing the number of positive claims by the total number of positive and negative claims. It does not include abandoned, withdrawn or administrative claims, or cases in which the claimant died before the case could be decided.

To see our full analysis and download the raw data, click here.